The Paradox of Migration and Economic Growth in Africa

By Alem Asmelash*

Migration is a fact of life and irregular migration of Africans to Europe is not a new phenomenon. Understanding it as the movement of people that takes place outside the regulatory norms of the sending, transit and receiving countries; irregular migration of Africans in search of better life via the Mediterranean has been the norm for the past decades. However, recently such migration has come under the spot light due to the number of lives lost in sea (more than a thousand this year alone) and the alarming increase in the number of people that are willing to take the dangerous route.

The irregular migration from Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea initially starts from West Africa, Central Africa and Eastern Africa; and through the guidance of smugglers, migrants make their way to North Africa. Even if North African states such as Morocco and Tunisia were once bases that irregular migrants used to reach Europe; Libya for obvious reasons has recently become the ideal location for smugglers to collect the migrants at and start the sea journey from.

The reason for Africans to pursue such perilous journey to Europe is mostly for the quest of a better life and the expected opportunity in Europe in conjunction to the proximity of the continent to Africa. Recently however, mainly driven by the security situations in Libya, the number of migrants that are taking the voyage has alarmingly increased. A report has showed that the number has doubled from 2009 which was about 100,000 to more than 200, 000 in just 5 years by 2014.

The increase nevertheless seems to be a paradox, since in the last ten years African states have registered a remarkable economic growth which was not even halted by the financial crises of 2000 and conversely the number of irregular migrants via the Mediterranean has also increased in a much higher rate when one expects a natural decrease or should it?

This seemingly paradox situation can be explained by two arguments. Firstly, as economic development and greater political stability take root, people’s capabilities and aspirations to migrate are likely to increase; resulting in a considerable rise in rates of out-migration. The economic disparity between the countries where the migrants originate from and the receiving countries; drives people to migrate even when the countries of origin are under increasing economic development. It seems that the existence of better transportation and the availability of funds to finance the irregular migration, which can partly be linked to the economic development that African countries are starting to enjoy, enable people to pursue migrations at larger scale.

Secondly, even if there is a continuous and uninterrupted economic growth in Africa, the registered success is not able to bring about employment and other social successes as expected so far; resulting in people to look for other alternatives such as irregular migration. The African Development Bank (AfDB) in January 2015 reported that Africa’s growth, during the past decade, marked the longest period of unbroken increases in per capita incomes since the 1960s. Africa’s growth, at about 5 percent per annum, exceeded that of many developing regions, with the exception of Asia. The continent is also on track to see a total gross domestic product of $2.6 trillion by the end of this decade. However the report stipulates that, ‘the positive Africa’s economic growth story has not been inclusive as there has not been adequate economic transformation, as all members of society especially women have not been able to participate in and contribute to the growth process more broadly…. as a result, the continent has experienced increasing disparity of income and overall human development.’ The report also adds, ‘Non inclusive growth is likely to result not only in rising and persistent inequalities in income and wealth, but also in health, education, participation in the political processes; leaving large sections of the population behind, is also likely to have repercussions on the sustainability of future economic growth, as human capital is left untapped and therefore stifling the full potential of aggregate demand and economic dynamism.’

Thus one should not expect a natural decrease in the number of people that are migrating out of Africa just by looking at the economic growth registered in the last decade. This is because the economic growth even if it is promising needs to sustained for at least another 10 years. It is only when the growth is sustainable that the effects of the growth will be felt by people in terms of positive economic changes in their lives. Unless that happens and with the current statuesque, people will even more be motivated to migrate due to the wide economic gap that exists between African countries and their European counterparts. Moreover information and the exchange of it has gotten faster than ever. With the proliferation of ICT in Africa, people are now much closer to find out the kind of life they expect in Europe.

Therefore these two factors feed on to the direct relationship of the growth rates in Africa and the increase in the number of migrants from the continent. The non- inclusive nature of the growth has made a significant segment of the African population unable to see the trickle down effects of the growth improving on their lives. Rather than believing in the future of the growth, most people tend to see irregular migration as a better alternative to a better life. In addition the economic growth in Africa has also enabled African countries to spend more on infrastructure development, ICT and other public utilities thereby facilitating people’s movement and reach to information, enabling irregular migrants use these relatively better infrastructures to make their ways to Europe.

*Alem Asmelash ( )  is a Communication Assistant at the Africa Peace and Security Programme (APSP), a joint programme of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) and the African Union. All views expressed in the AfSol blog are solely the views of the authors and do not in any represent the views of the IPSS or APSP. For more information on AfSol Blog, please contact